It turns out that being racist is bad and that black people are real good dancers who make some mean collard greens. Oh my, did I just flip your bowler wrong side-up? Sounds like you're a bigot who needs a fat slice of life served to you by Hairspray, an adaptation of a musical drawn from the bowels of Broadway (though not before Broadway first had a chance to adapt the original, non-musical film for the stage). If there's one thing this movie knows, it's that blitheness will win out and problems are best solved with pluck. And who doesn't like pluck, you jackass?
You see, Tracy wants to be a dancer on television. It's the 60s, so there are black people who we're afraid of but who seem to have lots of fun regardless. You know they have fun because once a month you see them on television. It's subtle segregation, you might not notice it, so here in the movie we call it Negro Day. Television is in black and white and it's controlled by men with cigars and cosmetics companies. Tracy is also fat, but she's resourceful, so she keeps smiling and dancing until she gets on the show. Then she is like, "Let's stop having Negro Day one day and just have Negro Day forever." Trouble ensues, but briefly. I won't spoil the ending, but I will reveal that You Can't Stop the Beat.
The movie is ably directed and choreographed by Adam Shankman, who does no real wrongs, except he did pick this project. Nerds will recognize his name because he choreographed the Buffy musical; Broadway fans will thank him for scrapping Jerry Mitchell's original, overly frenetic work on the show. Shankman keeps a fluid pace, and musical numbers occur at exactly the point at which musical numbers should occur. He avoids surprises and does the bidding of the script, imbuing scenes not with delightful! confectionary! fantasy! but with embarrassing wish-fulfillment fakery.
Casting is a mixed bag, beginning with the unfortunately stunt-like choice to place John Travolta in the role of Edna Turnblad, the gigantic doting housewife. Travolta minces into a role ruled on film by Divine and onstage by Harvey Fierstein, and it would all just be an ignorable folly if it weren't for the fact that Travolta has turned into a painfully bad singer and a completely mediocre dancer. His presence nearly spoils the musical's least grating tune, a sweet little duet called "(You're) Timeless To Me" that he shares with Christopher Walken (lurching around with the unteachable gracelessness of an ex-dancer who can barely be arsed to show up on set anymore). Showing up for the first time in forever is Michelle Pfeiffer, who I guess is evil and therefore bad at staying on pitch; showing up for the umpteenth time is Queen Latifah, playing, you know, the sassy black woman who saves the day. You would think at this point she'd be a little tired of saving white people from themselves. I guess I'm grateful she's not.
The kids fare a little better. Tracy Turnblad herself is played by Nikki Blonsky, who basically didn't do a damn thing before she got cast in this, and good on her. She sings, she dances, she's cute and I'll light a candle for her future career. High School Musical heartstring tugger and Bop mainstay Zac Efron checks in with a ton of mugging, and Amanda Bynes seems to have developed enough comic timing to puncture through the script's dull call-response. Best of all is James Marsden — he's a total snooze as Cyclops in the X-Men movies, but here he exhibits grace, charm, rhythm, and pipes.
It's not that it's so bad to have a movie that believes in joy, and in triumph by dance-off. In fact, those are a couple of things sorely lacking in cinema and in life. As an endlessly embarrassed proponent of the Broadway musical, I like to believe in nothing more than the resolution of conflict through song and dance. Only it helps to have a bit of an emotional arc to set your characters on, something for them to battle internally as well as externally, well, doesn’t it? Surely we read the same screenwriting blog. Hairspray props up villains like target practice and, as they're picked off one by one, we don't get to have any fun at all. Why should we? Turns out we already knew that racism was bad.